Thursday, 5 April 2012

Egyptian Constitutional Walk-out Risky Business

Photo Credit: AP
Egyptian Liberals have walked out on the constituent assembly chosen by the Egyptian Parliament to author a new constitution.  The reason?  Not enough representation in the assembly, they argue, when it was largely liberals in Egyptian elite, press, and student cores that ignited the revolution.

The walk-out has illicited hasty maneuvers by the Islamists who dominate the assembly to win them back.

Yet what if the liberal's walk-out strategy fails? Do they have a viable BATNA? The only favorable outcome to a negotiated agreement is that the new constitution is so marred by illegitimacy and one-sidedness that it fails to be adopted.

Liberals bank on this option at their peril.  The more likely outcome from a failed walk-out is that the Islamists-dominated assembly writes a constitution that is embraced by the largely Islamist-sympathetic country anyway, despite any hints and tinges of illegitimacy.

Those who will care most are the minority of Egyptian liberals and the West, but what then? Best case scenario for liberals is that it will take 5, 10, 25, perhaps 50 years for liberals to organize and gain a majority in Parliament sufficient to re-write the constitution.  Picture Hungary.  (And how well is that turning out?) Yet the country will still lose overall because frequent constitution-writing makes for unstable political and economic structures.  Even if economists dominate writing committees for economic provisions in the constitution, a business would be hard pressed to invest and set down roots in such a politically unstable environment.*

Constitutional walk-outs by minorities and their inefficacy are not without precedent.  During the American Constitutional Convention, two delegates from New York, Yates and Lansing, afraid to see the power of their principal, Governor Clinton, wane, walked out.  Did that help their cause at all?  No--instead, they merely diminished their influence on the final product.

There were other dissenters in the Constitutional Convention, most notably George Mason, who did not walk out.  Instead, he refused to sign.  But he stayed till the end, after many had already left for home.  He stayed and contributed and worked tirelessly for his principles to be affected into constitutional texts.  He lost on some things, but there are a good many points he gained.

Unless dissidents are in the majority, walking out of a constitutional convention or constituent assembly will not likely be as efficacious as rolling up their sleeves, gaining friendly and unlikely advocates, and working as hard as they can to affect their goals into the new constitution.  As it is, the liberals in Egypt better hope the Islamists don't call their bluff.

*Post-script:  the lesson for other countries, of course, is to develop constitution procedures that are inclusive from the outset.

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